Micro rant

Today I am on a very small, insignificant rant, one of those things that just makes you want to shake your head to clear it because you must be missing something.

Before I get started, some numbers and facts.

  • In a little over 90 days the WoW universe of classes will contain 12 classes, 36 specs. (Interesting, never thought of this before — is the reason Demon Hunters have only 2 specs a nifty little balancing thing to the fact that Druids have 4?)
  • Of those 12 classes, 3 can equip shields: Paladins, Shamans, and Warriors.
  • A total of 4 specs within the three classes actually use shields: Prot Warrior, Prot Pally, Holy Pally, Resto Shaman. (This is a tad subjective, because other specs can technically equip shields but at least in this expansion typically don’t because of the hit to their powers, so the number of shield-bearing specs may be off by maybe one or two.)
  • Shamans cannot equip any type of sword.
  • According to WorldofWargraphs, the three shield-bearing classes represent about 28% of all WoW characters. If you subtract Shammies, the number is 20%.

So with this little rundown of weapons proficiencies, we come to today’s subject: Yesterday Blizz started to send out their movie gifts to current players. As previously announced, it was a movie-inspired transmog set. I am not sure if they had previously told us the composition of the set, but it turned out to be a one-handed sword and a shield.

Now, of course I was brought up to always be appreciative of gifts, whether I liked them or not. When I got that 6-pack of plain white cotton underwear for my 7th birthday from my Great Aunt Dorothy, I put on my best smile, thanked her, and gave her a big hug. When I got that vacuum from my spouse for our first anniversary, I thanked him and smiled. (He later described the smile as “frosty” and “threatening” and naturally we subsequently had The Discussion about the difference between a gift and a household appliance….) But I was polite and genuinely grateful for the thought of a gift. It’s how I was raised.

So I don’t want to be rude about this latest gift from Blizz. It is after all the thought that counts, and in this case — probably for quite a few players — the thought is the only thing they can use. I will not deny that the set is quite attractive, plus it is BoA, but if I were not so polite, I would be saying, “WTF, Blizz, have you lost your marbles? What the hell good is a transmog set of a sword and shield that can’t be used by the majority of your players?

Seriously, someone at Blizz actually made the decision to hand out a transmog set that can be used as a set by fewer than 20% of the characters in the game. (I don’t have any statistics on how many Pallys and Warriors use shield-bearing specs, but it is certainly less than all of them, and together the classes represent only 20% of WoW classes.)

It’s like getting a Christmas present “for all you kids” that consists of a telescope that only your nerdy brother will ever use.

Again, I really don’t want to be ungrateful, but I would love to have been in on that particular staff meeting. I cannot even imagine what the discussion must have been, what weird pseudo-logic must have swayed the decision makers to go with this. I think the extent of it must have been:

Staffer 1: Boss, we need to give the current players some kind of movie-related freebie, or else they will feel left out of the promotions and may not even go see it.

Boss: Any suggestions?

Staffer 1: Well, we don’t really want to go to a lot of trouble over it, so it has to be something we can do easily. Maybe a digital item we can deliver via in game mail. Tech guys tell us it is possible to determine the first character each account logged on with and limit the item to that character only. Makes it more manageable if we only have to send one item per account.

Staffer 2: Hey, you know the faction swords and shields from the movie, those are way cool! Let’s send those out as transmogs.

Staffer 1: I dunno, how many players could really use those?

Boss: Great idea, do it! Now I gotta run, got an Overwatch meeting I am late for.

As I said, in the big picture of things, this doesn’t count for anything. Sure, I was annoyed when I discovered that what they sent me was something I could not use on any of my characters except my baby Pally (which I am not even sure I will keep), but mostly it just puzzles me that Blizz thought it was a great thing to do. I really do not understand their decision making process, in this or in many other things lately.

But, hey, I was raised to be polite and appreciative, so, Blizz, thank you thank you for the awesome underwear transmog set! It’s just what I wanted! *hug*

Where do you see WoW a year from now?

Administrative edit: I am taking a holiday break and will see you all after New Year’s. To all my readers, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you warmth and happiness and love in this season of hope and throughout the coming year.

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Most of us have probably had to deal with this by-now trite job interview question. Over the weekend I was writing some job and college recommendations for colleagues, and I admit my mind was wandering a bit. I found myself fantasizing about interviewing Blizzard for the job of keeping my money and occupying my time in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

I imagined myself as an interviewer, and Blizz as a job applicant. Honestly, the interview did not go very well, mainly because my imaginary Blizz applicant pretty much assumed he had the job all sewn up, and frankly had not prepared for the interview at all.

Me. Mr. Blizzard, very nice to meet you, please come in and sit down.

Blizz (dressed in wrinkled khakis, untucked shirt, no tie, sneakers, could use a haircut). Hey, how’s it going?

Me. I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place. Can I get you some coffee or anything?

Blizz. Nah, I’m good.

Me. Well, fine, let’s get started then. My first question is one I ask every applicant: why do you want this job?

Blizz. Well, um, you know. Guaranteed monthly income, plus big chunk of change every time I put out a new expansion. Not to mention it lets me develop games way cooler than the one you play.

Me. I see. And what do I get in return?

Blizz. Well, you get a pretty nifty game, and you get to play it the way I think is best. Y’know, immersion and stuff. Oh, and something I’m really excited about, you have an opportunity to watch people way better than you play it. For a spectator fee of course. Awesome, huh?

Me. Uh huh. Well, let’s move on.

(Interview wraps up.)

Me. Last question. Where do you see yourself a year from now?

Blizz. (Long pause) Errr, Legion and stuff?

Me. I mean bigger picture, where do you see your subscriptions, the composition of your player base, your goals for the game, that kind of thing? And in particular, where do I fit into this bigger picture?

Blizz. (With perplexed look of a pig gazing at a wrist watch.) So do I get the job or not?

Where, indeed, will the game be a year from now? And will I or you still be in the picture?

In contemplating Legion, especially in light of Blizz’s ventures into eSports and Hollywood, I find myself wondering who exactly they see as their player base any more? More to the point, do they see me as a part of that player base beyond being a means to finance their “real” players?

When I first heard about the WoW movie, I thought of it as a giant advertisement for the game, the purpose of which advertising was to pull new players into an aging game. Certainly such a strategy makes sense after a year like 2015, which has seen the loss of something like 5 million subscribers. Even if Blizz no longer counts subscriptions as a measure of business success in the game, that big a loss has got to hurt. Another year like that and it will be the end of the franchise.

So there are huge stakes involved in both the movie and Legion. But what does Blizz see as the nature of those stakes? How will they measure “success” a year from now? And how are they structuring the game to maximize what ever their definition of success is?

On the one hand, we see the company going pretty much all in on eSports, although WoW being suitable for that genre is a bit dicey in my opinion. Still, it’s possible if Blizz has the right showbiz approach. An interesting question is, what kind of player base is needed to support WoW as an eSport? I don’t claim to know the answer to that, but I know what kind does not support it: the super-casual-futz-around-when-you-have-some-time-to-kill player that I am betting has historically been WoW’s bread and butter even if Blizz does not want to admit it.

These are the players who always felt like they could play once every few days and still get enjoyment from the game, so they kept their subscriptions current. These are also the players who decided that WoD took away that possibility of casual enjoyment and thus made their subscriptions not worth the money.

So how is Blizz shaping the game to win back large numbers of mom-and-pop and other  casual players, while at the same time trying to re-brand it as a fierce professional “sport”? Again, I have no answers, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, I am not entirely certain that Blizz itself knows the answer, or indeed if they realize it is even a question. I say this because of the conflicting messages we have gotten in the game for the last year, and which I see continuing as we move into Legion. (I am talking about big conflicts here, such as making raiding almost the exclusive end game activity while at the same time implementing designs that make raiding more and more elusive for large numbers of players.)

Second, if Blizz is indeed looking to swell its subscription numbers with new players as a result of the movie combined with Legion, I doubt if they will be able to walk the thin line between new player accessibility and enraged cries of “dumbing down”? Character boosts and professional catch-up mechanisms notwithstanding, the learning curve for a brand new player who has no friend to help is almost impossibly high. Without dedicated study of third-party web pages, I maintain that your average casual player will abandon the game within a matter of a few weeks.

In short, I doubt if Blizz is on a path that will result in significant numbers of new players. Like it or not, and whether Blizz wants to admit it or not, the game is moving inexorably to a hardcore player model. They simply cannot make the game suitable for eSport pros  and fans while at the same time attracting the millions of casual players they need to sustain the business model. They might be in the same position with this dilemma that they were in regarding competing demands of PvP and PvE — until they admit that it is really two different games both approaches will suffer, but game design will inevitably favor one over the other.

So: Where do you see WoW in a year? Where do you think Blizz sees it? And most importantly, if you are interviewing them will you give them the job?




A few thoughts on the movie

Though I have paid little attention to any of the rumors and/or hype that have been going on for years now, it seems that there will in fact be a Warcraft movie hitting the screens next summer. I don’t know if I will rush out to see it or not, honestly. I usually like to wait for the DVD or the pay per view versions to come out. The experience is less grand than it is in the theater, but it is also less annoying without the popcorn munching, tweeting and texting, phones ringing, people talking and putting their smelly feet up on your seat back, etc.

I have never been overly interested in WoW lore, and I don’t know if the movie will therefore turn out to be a big yawner for me, of if it will get me more interested in the lore. Remains to be seen.

I also don’t have a feel for how good the movie will be, on its own. Quite a bit of recent hype hints that it will border on spectacular, but that is hype and who really knows. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it is a real blockbuster — great CGI, absorbing story line, terrific dialogue, and hunks and hotties galore. What might that mean for the game?

It will almost certainly make a lot of money for Activision Blizzard. And since the money will be made on the back of the WoW franchise, it should mean that the game itself will get some much-needed corporate interest and resources for a newly energized continuation. Should. That doesn’t mean it will. I still think ATVI is in the process of abandoning the WoW model, and there is a good chance that money from a WoW movie will be seen as a windfall for all their new games.

A successful movie will bring in new players to the game, possibly a LOT of new players. If — and only if — Blizz is prepared for this influx, it will be good for the game. By “prepared” I mean quite a few things:

  1. Servers are ready for the new load. You would think this is a no-brainer, but I give you as People’s Exhibits 1 and 2 launch of Mists and launch of WoD. ‘Nuff said.
  2. The game itself is welcoming, fun, and absorbing for new players who have never seen it before. This means it is self-contained, not so confusing that it requires an outside source such as Wowhead to make sense of it. It means the low-level experience is rich and varied enough to permit a wide range of play styles. It means there are mechanics in place to allow new players to easily meet up with and play with friends (for example, the game is more guild-friendly than it is now). It means a non-toxic social environment, where new players are not ridiculed and scorned for asking reasonable questions, where they are not seen as easy prey and entertainment for more experienced players. (And yes, I do think Blizz can help with this, it is not totally dependent  on the player base. There are plenty of actions they can take to greatly discourage toxic behavior.)
  3. Devs are prepared for a more or less continuous stream of small patches, designed to introduce fun tweaks and options rather than tons of new content.
  4. Classes and specs are stabilized and well-balanced (that is, fun to play) at every level, not designed only for end game max gear.
  5. There are rewarding group activities at low levels.

The specter of a looming successful movie is likely to have an effect on the game even before the movie comes out. Take a look at the timeline. Almost the earliest we will get an initial announcement of a new expansion is at Blizzcon. That means that –even being very optimistic — we would not get a beta before early 2016, and a PTR in spring of 2016 at best. Which would put the new expansion launch in synch with the movie premiere. This makes business sense, as it would combine movie revenues with a rash of new players PLUS the rash of returning players and game sales always associated with a new expansion. A banner year for Blizz. (Although I shudder at the almost certain technical chaos it will cause, given their track record.)

What does that mean for the current game? It means we are a year out — in the best case — from a new expansion. Another year of WoD, another year of garrisons and shipyards and apexis crystals and broken professions and horrible class imbalances.

I think it also means — in spite of Blizz’s reluctance to do it — at least one more patch, 6.3, before we get 7.0. In fact, if we are a year out from the xpac, we could conceivably see a 6.4. And, since I do not think we will get another raid tier, indications are that we will be basically in the same situation we were in Mists towards the end. I could be wrong, and I hope I am wrong, but the realities of time are pretty compelling.